A Fiend On Film’s Interview with EMMA WESTWOOD, author of THE FLY (2018)

I have been very fortunate to have known Melbourne, Australia’s Emma Westwood for a few years now and have been looking forward to her new book on David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (2018, Devil’s Advocates). After a bit of spotty availability, the book is now out everywhere and I asked Emma to answer a few questions about it. I have read it and Emma brings more to the table on the film than you might imagine. It definitely deserves a spot on your bookshelf.  Look forward to her next book on The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) down the road (and she does a ton of film commentaries for the boutique labels). Follow Emma Westwood on Twitter @EmmaJWestwood and her website:  emmawestwood.wordpress.com

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FIEND: Before we get into the book itself, can you let us know what interested you in becoming a film critic/writer? How did you get started?

EMMA WESTWOOD: I never wanted to be a film ‘critic’, so to speak. In fact, I never really liked the term ‘film critic’ because it seems to suggest someone who is better than the films themselves and is looking for the negative aspects when judging them. I just love cinema and want to celebrate the things I love, which means largely steering clear of talking about the ones I don’t love. But, initially, I wanted to be a filmmaker – more specifically, a director – rather than a commentator, but I quickly realised that I despised the shooting process and I just didn’t have the right personality to do it. That was all a process of self-discovery that took place when I was at university and hanging around with the university filmmaking club. I was also studying film theory as part of a Bachelor degree in Arts/Humanities so the writing about film – ‘criticism’, if you wish – just continued by an extension. I still harbour fantasies of writing some screenplays. I hope to do it someday. When I find the time.

F: I know you are a major fan of David Cronenberg films but what attracted you in writing a book on The Fly? Were there any other films of his you considered before this one?

EW: When I put forward a list of films to my publisher, John Atkinson, there were two David Cronenberg films included. He leapt on the opportunity for a Cronenberg monograph, and said he’d been waiting to add one to the Devil’s Advocates collection. The two films were The Fly and The Brood, and my publisher pretty much left it to me to choose which one appealed most. To be honest, I found it really hard to choose but I ended up going with The Fly because I had seminal memories around that film, including having just done a recent presentation, so it felt like the film was choosing me, in some way. Also, I love the simplicity of The Fly, and where it sat at the juncture between the two halves of Cronenberg’s career. I’m now glad I chose it because Electric Dreamhouse are publishing are book on The Brood. And my next house, Bride of Frankenstein, is for Electric Dreamhouse. Everything seems to have worked out nicely.

F: Who did you actually get to speak to and/or interview for this book? Did you find it easy to get subjects to discuss the film?

EW: I ended up speaking to 10 different people for the book, which was a lot for the Devil’s Advocates collection. Many of the Devil’s Advocates books just stick to straight film analysis but I have a journalistic background so I feel compelled to speak to the people involved in a film production; it’s just part of my curiosity. My publisher didn’t want to dictate things one way or another. He was careful not to stifle creativity but I also realised he didn’t want a ‘making of’ book so my challenge was to find the right mix of film analysis versus eyewitness accounts. I really wanted it to be entertaining, rather than too academic.

It wasn’t difficult getting the subjects to discuss the film at all. In fact, it was probably harder getting them to shut up! I was thrilled at how generous with their time and information they were – the producer, Stuart Cornfeld, talked to me for almost two-and-a-half hours! I couldn’t stop thanking him and he said that the film meant so much to him, he was more than happy to talk about it. That seemed to be the universal sentiment – everyone who worked on the film loved it and the experience of making it, despite the pressures. And a lot of that had to do with Cronenberg and his conduct on-set. Everyone spoke about him in glowing terms. I’d love to have interviewed him for the book but his PA told me he couldn’t remember the details any more! I think that was a bit of an excuse but, in the end, I’m actually glad I didn’t get to speak to Cronenberg because I could talk about the film entirely on my own terms without being overly influenced by the opinions of its director.

F: You have an anecdote in the acknowledgments section on your father’s reaction to a scene in the film. Did you two see it together in the theater?

EW: Ah, yes – it’s good to see you picked that up. That was one of the seminal memories I have around that film; taking my father to see it at the cinema. I’d already been to the cinema on the sly and seen The Fly when I was underage and shouldn’t have been there. I loved shocking my father, who had a weak stomach so, when I saw The Fly come up as part of a double feature (with Aliens, I believe) at a local arthouse theatre, I seized the opportunity to take Dad. Then I watched his face at all the key moments. I swear, when George Chuvalo had his wrist broken, Dad looked like his own wrist had been broken too! He loved the movie but it was a bit traumatic for him.

F: Why do you think in the past few years that film critique books on a single film are becoming more popular?

EW: It’s an interesting and exciting trend, which I think has a lot to do with the accessibility of older movies these days. When I was young, if you wanted to find anything beyond the mainstream, you had a real hunt on your hands. There were some great video stores that stocked hard-to-get horrors and the like (that’s how I got obsessed with Dario Argento) but you really had to work hard to find these films. Nowadays, you catch wind of something and it’s just a matter of punching it into your computer to stream or download. It feels like everything – a whole world of cinema – is available. And then you’ve got all these interesting companies like Kino Lorber, Arrow and Indicator that are seemingly pumping out these rare, almost forgotten titles, and even going to the trouble of providing extras about them and commentaries, of which I’ve been lucky to participate in a few. All of this creates a ‘cult of the film’, which means it’s not just about watching a film but it’s about dissecting a film in every which way, which allows the viewer to ‘own’ that film in a way they’ve never been able to before. I think the film monograph has arisen from that zeitgeist.

The Fly has definitely been comprehensively covered in the film press but it’s never been the subject of a monograph, as far as I know. There have been books dedicated to the original 1958 The Fly but not Cronenberg’s version. So, straight away, that gave me the opportunity to craft something unique because the narrative flow of a book is inherently different to an article. Creating a story arc over a book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, is a very challenging process. I wanted to reflect the essence of Cronenberg’s The Fly – the DNA aspect of it – by metaphorically mirroring that in the content of my book. So it’s all about the ‘DNA’ i.e. where did The Fly come from and what were the influencing factors that culminated in Cronenberg’s vision? I was lucky because The Fly has such an illustrious ancestry so I think my analogy worked very well. Well, at least I hope it does.

Get Emma’s book here or at any other book sellers:

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hitcher by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2018)

The Hitcher by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Published by Arrow Books 100 pgs. 2018

Don’t pick up hitchhikers…EVER.

Late in 2017, when this book by film critic and writer, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, was announced by Arrow, most of the film (mostly uptight) nerds around the “internet” were posting their disappointment. Why? Because it was a “book” and not a Bluray of THE HITCHER. I, myself, was all giddy with anticipation since it was a new book by one of my favorite film writers of all time!

I personally have only seen THE HITCHER from 1986 once and that was in the VHS days. I do own the DVD of it and it is more than likely it will not see a BluRay release unless HBO puts it out as they hold the rights to it (and I am sure there is more to it than that). So in cases like these, I look to people like Alex to throw down some knowledge to make me understand why a film like this is important to see.

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In her personal style, the “book” is assembled much like the last I read of hers, the one on Able Ferrara’s 1981 film, Ms. 45. It opens with pre-production on the film and references to older films, in this case, ones that deal with hitchhiking as a plot device. The middle section is her breakdown and observations on themes of THE HITCHER, going deep on the character’s motivations. The 3rd part deals with the film’s completion, the theatrical/critical response, the sequel and remake and other notes. The book also has stills and posters from the film, blown up to fill the page. I have read many articles on the film over the years and the writer of this book brings out tidbits I never heard before.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has put together a very well researched book. It doesn’t talk down to you like some film books. She drops the paragraphs easy to read but giving you plenty to consider about this film. It’s also kept clean with no footnotes (the references are in the back pages for further perusal) and Arrow did a nice concise layout. It’s a small book, yes, but books like these are important and I’m glad Arrow gave it a shot. Alex’s writing is a force to be reckoned with and I look forward to the next tome with her name on it!

3 recent books on Punk Rock & Hardcore Music…

Book looks…Have been off from watching film for a bit to catch up on some essential reading. All three of the following I already have extreme knowledge of but time makes memories fade, so you kind of have to get reacquainted with the subject matter. Reading Roger’s book “My Riot” was a bit of a revelation. I never spoke to him way back then. I saw Agnostic Front play a few times. Never knew enough about the people in the band to form solid opinions on them. There were a ton of “rumors” of course… After reading My Riot, many of my ideas about him were pretty much unfounded. He had a rougher life than I but strangely in a weird way we both had similar paths heading into the NYHC scene. (I didn’t know he grew up much of his young life in the same area of NJ as I did. Talking about taking the PATH train into NYC, brought back a lot of memories) It is a solid autobiography that is eye opening to say the least. Actually, there is an event he describes in the book that I showed up to mere moments after it happened. I wasn’t happy about that night… AY YI YI!

Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History is the 3rd oral history by Tony Rettman. I had no idea this book was being made as I have really spoken to him since the NYHC hardcore book came out a couple of years ago. I am so close to the subject matter, I was really interested to see how it was put together. Previous attempts at books on Straight Edge were so lackluster but Tony knows how to do this documentary style well.
It covers the history and concepts of Straight Edge bands from the humble beginnings in Washington DC to the worldwide movement it has become today. I knew/know so many of the players here, I was looking forward to what they had to say. Wasn’t “surprised” by too much and there really was a lot of new info on some bands I only corresponded with back them (mostly the California bands). I detected very little BS here as much of what was said I remember as true. Again, there are many situations discussed that I was there for so…. There are also many photos culled from private collections that were never published and so many flyers from shows that even I haven’t seen. It’s a great book that belongs on your music history shelf for sure.

My Damage by Keith Morris is an in depth autobiography from the former singer of Black Flag and Circle Jerks. Another book I didn’t know existed until a few months ago and I was very happy to get a copy in my hands. Other than a few facts, I knew very little about the front man of two of my favorite bands of all time. he talks in detail about his upbringing, entry into the LA punk music scene and how his first two bands came to be. His telling of things is a very interesting point of view and I learned quite a bit of how “it went”. He doesn’t hold back and has regrets on some of things he has done in his life. I read this book and wonder how he is still walking among the living.

If you have any interests in old punk and hardcore music, all 3 of these books are high recommends from me. Now, let me get back to some movies….

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My Riot https://www.amazon.com/dp/B072F5DLXH

STRAIGHT EDGE: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History https://www.bazillionpoints.com/product/straight-edge-a-clear-eyed-hardcore-punk-history-by-tony-rettman/#

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01DWWCBEK

My Thoughts on Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore by Freddy Alva (2017)

It’s really strange when you literally lived through an entire period of a music scene and still missed so much. I have know Freddy Alva since 1988 or so (meeting him where else but at CBGB’s). Since he pretty much grew up in NYC, he was very close to the goings on of the ever growing graffiti culture that the city bred like weeds in a lawn. I do remember him showing me these “black books” of his, small books where graffiti writers would do a piece in them and it became a collection of unique pieces of art. While I was always interested in it, I never paid too much attention at the time. Maybe because where we all hung out, graffiti of all types was everywhere. It was “normal”. It was on every wall, street, cars, trucks, etc… and of course the subways which I was fortunate enough to see before the big clean up in the late 1980’s. Freddy was more into it than I at the time and lucky for us, he put together a tome that collects the art and people associated with the New York City Hardcore scene were we apart of and the graffiti that came with it.

The book covers the years of 1980-1995 and all the people involved. It’s told through interviews and remembrances, graffiti crews that were around and of course the images of the work. It is interesting to hear some of the people I knew back then, talk about graffiti and the influence if had on their lives. Back then, we really only talked music, so so much of this was new to me. The most important thing here is the art. If you have a huge collection of street art, graffiti and graffiti history books like I do, rest assured, Urban Styles has images that have not been published elsewhere. Strangely enough, I was at like every show during this time period and was handed flyers on the regular. This book has flyer art that I have never seen before. I was actually taken aback at points reading this book because of that fact. It just goes to show that Freddy was very thorough while researching and putting this thing together.

Graffiti has a long history and what Urban Styles covers is just a small part of it. If this book didn’t exist, sadly this crucial part of the whole picture would be lost to time. From what I understand, the book is close to sold out. I really hope the publishers decide to reprint it. Anyone who is a fan of this style of art really needs to add this to your book collection, one of the best books on the subject. Period.

https://www.amazon.com/Urban-Styles-Graffiti-York-Hardcore/dp/099134474X

Urban Styles Facebook Group

https://www.facebook.com/Urban-Styles-Graffiti-In-New-York-Hardcore-1644635112469700

Interview with Freddy Alva on Urban Styles

http://www.soundrenaissance.net/freddy-alva-urban-styles/

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A look at Cultographies: Ms. 45 by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2017)

I “met” Alexandra through her writing a couple of year back when I read one of her previous books, Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study. To me, just that title alone is a home run but when I was about half way through I knew I was reading words from my “new” favorite film writer. While the book has that scholarly air about it, Alexandra shows she is a down to earth film fan first and writes so that dumb shulbs like me can understand. I found out about a couple of films she wrote about in a positive fashion and picked them up.

I later learned from her at the time, that she was working on two future books, both single film specific. One was about Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and the next, the one I was most interested in, Abel Ferrara’s 1981 Classic Ms. 45. Little that I knew it was going to be a bit for it to be released. The countdown began at that moment…

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^ Contents page…

Last week, the book arrived in my mailbox and I fast tracked it to the top of the pile. I was first surprised at the small size of the book and then realized it was perfect. Sized like a classic paperback you would find on the racks of seedy magazine shops (like Seven Star News in the city of Linden, New Jersey where I grew up), the subject material fits it like a glove. In a historical fashion, Alexandra breaks down the making/creation of the film, from it’s beginnings to the finished product hitting the screens.

She is a researcher who likes details and doesn’t skimp on them. While Alexandra doesn’t have a direct interview with any of the particulars, there are many referenced quotes from all who were involved with the proceedings. There is a big focus on Zoe Lund, from the acting in Ms. 45, her writings & collaborations with Abel on other productions, such as Bad Lieutenant (1992). Small details do not get unnoticed, it seems for one big scene in the film, Ferrara hired for day work, people hanging out in the Revolutionary Communist Party Bookstore on 18th Street/NYC, as his studios were upstairs. Weird, I was at that place a few times in the 80’s, who knew such greatness was up above! There is also words written about the recent “uncut” DVD release by Drafthouse Films. While I knew there were many versions of Ms. 45, I wasn’t aware that it was never released in full until 2013. Crazy.

Overall, as with much of her previous work, Alexandra writes for the “common folk” when it comes to film critique. I would say about 15% of the book would be considered psycho babble but the rest is hardcore film criticism and looking into the film’s production, the screenings and reactions afterward. Ms. 45, when you look at it at face value, is not an easy film to fully understand and everybody comes away from it differently. Even though I have seen the film a few times over the years, this book illuminated somethings I missed (again, I’m a dumb shulb, don’t sue me…). If you are like me and enjoy reading about movies, Cultographies: Ms. 45 is a sure pick-up.

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Find the book and Alexandra on the Web here:

https://www.amazon.com/Ms-45-Cultographies-Alexandra-Heller-Nicholas/dp/0231179855

http://www.thebluelenses.com/

https://twitter.com/suspirialex